The Social Origins of Good Ideas

This is the title of a 2003 paper by Ronald S. Burt. The paper is listed with 41 citations on Google Scholar which suggests it is not as well-known as it should be. The paper attempts to demonstrate a link between a worker/manager’s network capital and the perception within their organisation of how good their ideas are. In my opinion it does this with a convincing degree of success. It is a lengthy and involved piece of research, so here are the edited highlights…

Hypothesis:

“…people who live in the intersection of social worlds are at higher risk of having good ideas… people connected to otherwise segragated groups are more likely to be familiar with alternative ways of thinking and behaving, which gives them the option of selecting and synthezing alternatives.”

Key Findings:

“Managers whose discussion networks more often spanned structural holes were more likely to express their ideas, less likely to have their ideas dismissed by senior management, and more likely to have their ideas perceived as valuable.”

“social capital created a vision advantage”

“… good ideas were discussed in a way that reproduced the existing social structure. Good ideas emerged from the intersection of social worlds but spread in a way that continued segregation between the worlds.”

Brokerage

Burt’s main point is that people who bridge gaps across structural holes have better ideas.

Although… it’s not quite like that, it seems to me that the research says they are perceived as having better ideas by senior management. This is quite an important distinction – you probably know very bright people in your organisation who are specialists and experts and quite happy doing what they are – a positive silo mentality (ignoring the fact that silo is generally a pejorative term) – and have no interest in climbing the corporate pole.

From my experience, a good example of this would be the Natural History Unit at the BBC, the idea of the Head of the NHU becoming Director General is laughable – why would they want to? But the idea that a group of this kind does not create huge value for the beeb is similarly ridiculous.

It seems that what the senior managers in Burt’s study value (within the scope of the study) is the ability of people to act as brokers within an organisation bridging gaps between business units. He identifies four types of brokerage:

  • Awareness – simply providing news and info about the other side(s) of a structural hole
  • Transferring best practice
  • Drawing analogies between seemingly irrelevant groups
  • Synthesising new beliefs and behaviours that combine elements from multiple groups.

Thus it is quite easy to understand how brokers are critical to organisational learning and creativity, and are key to driving and embedding change in organisations.

In Part Two of this post (tomorrow) I will look at:

  • How a silo mentality takes hold and sustains itself
  • Impact of networks and ideas on performance and reward
  • The role of the ‘Informal Boss’
  • Criticism of the research.